Saturday, June 16, 2012

New York Jews: The Next Generation

NYC has always had a big Jewish population. 

Over the last hundred years, our city became a welcoming refuge for Jews from Europe escaping persecution. In many ways, the history of NYC in the 20th century is the story of the rise of the Jewish community. Poor Jews from Europe came to NYC and used their smarts and strong work ethic to create businesses and achieve monumental professional success: doctors, lawyers, accountants, college professors, etc. They built and shaped the city we live in today. They came with nothing and gained everything.

Including power. Our current mayor is Jewish. Two of our city's previous four mayors were Jewish. One of our US Senators is Jewish. Many of our city's members of congress are Jewish.

NYC is a place where Jews from around the world became Americans and achieved the American dream.

No one probably personified the greatness of the Jewish experience in NYC better than Dr. Jonas Salk. Born in 1914 in NYC to Russian immigrant parents, he graduated from City College in 1934 and, after medical school at NYU, went on to create the polio vaccine that has saved hundreds of millions of lives around the world.

In the last several years, the "typical New York Jew" (if there is such a thing) has been defined as followed: highly educated, professionally successful, socially liberal, financially independent, and religiously observant if not devout. They are, in a word, highly cosmopolitan. 

But that's changing

In the last decade, the population of the New York Jewish community has both grown and changed dramatically. It has become less educated, less professional, more socially conservative, more dependent on government services, and much more religious. It has became, in a word, more Orthodox.

This has happened for two main reasons. First, the population of the "typical New York Jew" has stagnated. Like most cosmopolitan people, they have had few children and many have had no children at all. Second, since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, there has been a huge influx of Russian Jews into NYC. They are highly religious, very insular in their communities, and they are having lots and lots of children. 

The Orthodox Jews are rising while the cosmopolitan Jews are declining.

This has potentially huge implications for our city. In future decades, Jewish New Yorkers may not dominate the city's establishment and institutions in the same way they did. Or they might -- but they will be more conservative and more religious and the establishment and those institutions will then change.

And our city's politics will change too. Increasingly, NYC will have its own version of the religious right -- a strong, politically forceful constituency that demands that their religious views be respected and even enshrined into law. In the past, cosmopolitan New York Jews were reliable Democratic voters (except in Mayoral elections where Republicans Giuliani and Bloomberg only won over cosmopolitan Jews because they didn't consider either Giuliani or Bloomberg to be "real Republicans"; otherwise, in all other elections, New York Jews vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers). But not Orthodox Jews. Sometimes they vote Democratic but they are open to voting Republican -- particularly if those Republicans are socially conservative but willing to spend more on government services. In many ways, Orthodox Jewish Republicans are the inverse of cosmopolitan Jewish Democrats who are socially liberal but don't need government services. They are, in many ways, mirror opposites. And in future years, the nature of New York Jews may be the opposite of what we have come to know it to be.

Like NYC itself, the New York Jewish community remains dynamic.

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